By: James Bates
Not to be denied, Quinn and Karen and Matt and Jen are back for episode #11 of Jim's SF series. Hope you enjoy it!
They were sitting side by side in a small park. The sun was shining and a light breeze blew through the trees and there was a scent of wildflowers in the air. Karen grinned and hugged Quinn. "I've never been so happy," she said, and kissed him passionately. "I never thought we'd end up like this."
"It's almost like in a dream, isn't it?" Quinn kissed her in return and rubbed her protruding belly. "And I never thought that we'd ever have another child. How's the little one doing?"
Karen put her hand over her husbands and gazed into his eyes. "She doing, fine. She's looking forward to meeting her daddy."
"Oh, yeah. I can tell."
"That's very cool." Quinn grinned at his wife, but was distracted when, nearby, a bird began singing. "Look," Quinn said, reaching for a bird identification book and flipping through it. "I think that's a catbird."
Karen grinned at her easily sidetracked husband. "Pretty voice."
"Yeah, and that tree it's in I think that's a cottonwood." He consulted another book, one on tree identification. "Yep, it is."
"Good to know," Karen tickled him playfully, then lay back and looked up through the branches of the tree to a cloudless blue sky. She wasn't kidding when she said she'd never been happier. It had been six months since the two of them and their son Matt and friend Jen had escaped to the mountains from the pollution of the city and the horror of living under the repressive government of the World Order. Near starvation, they had been rescued by Aaron, who had led them to the village of Nedlaw on the bank of the Willow River, the same river they had followed out of the mountains. The same river they were now sitting next to.
And life was good. They lived in a small cottage on edge of the village. They had jobs which helped them contribute to the mostly agrarian community. Their son was in school and was making friends. They were together as a family and could live as they wished without the government breathing down their necks. Like Quinn had said, it was a dream come true.
Karen sat up and opened her backpack. "Let have our lunch."
"Great." Quinn opened his pack, too. "I've brought some black berries and a couple of containers of water."
Karen handed him a honey and apple butter sandwich and Quinn hungerly took a bite. "Man, you make the best bread. Who would have ever thought?"
Karen smiled and nudged him with her elbow. "Hey, I was a scientist, you know. Back in the day." And she had been. A biologist working for Millennium Microbial. But those times were long gone. Now she put her scientific mind to use making wonderfully tasty bread as well as working as a panel technician at the solar energy farm that helped provide power to the village.
Quinn savored his sandwich and watched the river. It was about forty feet wide and rushing rapidly due to yesterday's rains. Downstream about a mile he could just make out a series of low buildings from the village. Another couple of miles on the other side was the dam where the grindstone was located for the watermill. It's where Quinn worked assisting the miller in processing the wheat grown in the valley. Wheat flour was the staple of the community and Quinn was honored to be part of the labor force used in producing it.
"Have you talked to Jen lately?" he asked, munching on a handful of black berries.
"Yeah. I saw her and Aaron yesterday at the market. She's doing really well. She likes working as a teacher's aide at the school."
"What do you think? Are she and Aaron serious?"
"Yeah, I'd say. You can tell. She just shines."
"Well, I'm glad. She's a good person. I'm not sure we would have made it across No Man's Land and the mountains without her."
"Not to mention fighting off the wild dogs."
"Yeah, no kidding." Quinn shook his head. "Who could forget?"
Karen put her arm around his shoulders. "I'm just glad we're here. We've got a good life going."
He was about to say more when all of a sudden, the tower bell in the village square began ringing.
"Oh, oh." Karen looked to her left. "Wonder what's going on?"
Quinn stood up and helped her to her feet. "Let's pack up our stuff and find out."
By hurrying, it took them about fifteen minutes to get to the park that formed the village square. Jen had been watching for them and waved to get their attention.
"Guys," she ran up to them, "I'm glad you're here. We've got a big problem."
"What do you mean?" Karen asked. Jen rarely got rattled but something was clearly upsetting her.
"What's going on?" Quinn added.
She looked at them both and said, "There's no way to sugar coat this so I'll be upfront. Matt's gone missing. He wandered off from Shellie's house. She thinks he's up in the hills."
But Matt wasn't.
Earlier in the day, when his parents had decided to go on a picnic, Quinn asked Matt to come along, but he'd begged off, saying, "But, my friend Gary wanted me to go over to his house and play with him."
This was the first Quinn had heard of it. He turned to Karen. "Know anything about this?"
"No." She knelt down so she was eye to eye with her son. "Remember our discussion? We've talked about this. When something unexpected comes up, even if it's going to see a friend, you have to tell us about it."
Matt was contrite, but adamant. "I'm sorry, Mom. But Gary and I talked about it at school. He really wants me to come over. Please can I go?"
Matt had flourished in the six months they'd been living in the village. After being raised under brutal conditions by emotionally cold and distant strangers in a regional operated dormitory in the city, he was growing into a confident, intelligent and happy five-year old boy under the guidance of a patient teacher, and the loving care and devotion of his parents. Quinn and Karen were trying to be careful not to indulge him too much, but in this case, it made sense. Gary was a nice kid, the two of them were the same age, and they were good friends.
Karen looked at Quinn and they nodded to each other. "Okay," Karen said, "You and I and your dad will walk you over to Gary's on the way to our picnic." She smiled and emphasized ‘our,' making a joke as she squeezed Quinn's arm, both of them now looking forward to some unexpected time with just the two of them.
"Yippee!" Enthused Matt.
Shellie's husband had died of a brain tumor just after Gary was born and she was raising him as a single parent, telling everyone that Jeb had been the love of her life and no one could replace him. And she doing a wonderful job with Gary, too, teaching him good values while working as a nursing assistant at the local clinic. She also had a way with cookies and muffins and pies and other baked goods she sold for extra cash. Quinn and Karen referred to Shellie and her son as "Good people" and they happily dropped Matt off and went on their way, walking hand in hand.
After his parents left, Matt and Gary played outside while Shellie kept an eye on them from the kitchen where she was making honey-sugar cookies for the market. She was just mixing in an egg when she heard Gary screaming from the yard. She dropped what she was doing and ran outside where she could see in an instant what was happening. The kids had gotten into a nest of mud wasps that were swarming all over them. Matt had run away, but Gary remained frozen in place, petrified with fear. Shellie ran and grabbed him, bushing wasps off as she hurried inside the cottage to comfort him and administer to his stings.
Left of his own Matt would have been fine but for a young dog who chose that moment to wander into the yard. When the little fellow spied Matt, he ran up to him, yipping playfully and wagging its tail.
"Oh, what a cute little doggy," Matt said, dropping to the ground to play. He reminded Matt of the dogs they'd seen crossing No Man's Land on their way to the mountains. But this little guy seemed lots friendlier than that pack of vicious wild canines. He was smallish, mostly white with some black marking around his face and floppy ears. Matt giggled as the puppy licked his face. "Oh, you silly little guy." The puppy allowed Matt to pick him up and hold him. "I think I'll call you Joey."
It was an instant bond. When Matt set him down and Joey took off running, Matt didn't think twice. He jogged after his new friend, following him out of Shellie's yard, across a field and down a trail through a grove of trees all the way down to the edge of the river. When Joey stepped to the edge to get a drink, Matt was right behind him.
"Hey, little guy. You thirsty? I am, too."
Without thinking, Matt stepped off the bank into the river, but the combination of a fast current and slippery stones were too much. He lost his footing and fell, pinwheeling his arms in a vain attempt to regain his balance before plunging into the rushing water. Instantly, he was caught up in the raging river and carried downstream, bobbing through the waves and smashing off rocks as he struggled to stay afloat.
"Help. Help me. Mom. Dad," he yelled, but no one was around to hear him.
No one but Joey.
On the shore, the little dog saw his new friend struggling to stay afloat and didn't hesitate. He leaped into churning waters and fought the current until he was able to swim close enough for Matt to grab hold.
"Joey," Matt called as he enfolded the little dog into his arms and pulled him tightly to his chest. Joey licked Matt's face as together as they were propelled downstream, Joey's buoyancy helping to keep them from sinking. Matt couldn't see it, but only a half a mile away was the dam and the mill with its huge grindstone spinning fast in the rushing river. They were being swept toward it, the cold-water sapping Matt's strength as he became weaker by the minute. All he could do was hold on to Joey for dear life.
Upon hearing the news Matt was missing, Quinn and Karen became frantic. While Jen tried to calm them, her friend Aaron came up and quickly explained about Gary and the mud wasps. When he was finished, much to Quinn and Karen's relief, he took charge and said, "Okay, here's what we'll do "
He separated the villagers into teams of two and had them spread out, sending some toward the foot hills, some to search the village and some to comb through the wheat fields outside of town.
Karen gratefully watched the search groups hurrying off, but she was near tears, imploring Quinn, "We've got to find him."
He took her hand, "Let's go back to Shellie's and start from there."
"Good idea," Aaron agreed.
As they made their way to where Matt was last seen, Jen tried to get Karen to focus. "Any idea where he could have gone?"
"None." She turned to Quinn, "What do you think?"
"It's unlike him to just wander off. I wonder if maybe he saw something that interested him."
"You know, he likes animals," Karen said.
"Yeah, maybe a goat or a chicken or something came by and he followed it."
Jen's attention was drawn to a couple of dogs chasing each other and playing. She pointed. "Maybe a dog?"
Quinn and Karen looked at each other. They knew their son well.
"Yeah," Quinn said.
"A dog." Karen added.
"Makes a lot of sense," Jen concurred.
Aaron spoke up, "Okay, following a dog is not that big a deal. The big deal is over there." He pointed to a row of trees a quarter of a mile away. "The river is on the other side of that tree line and that's what we've got to worry about. It's running high after the rain yesterday. The rapids downstream toward the mill are dangerous. Plus, there's the dam and the falls."
Quinn pictured the ten-foot-high falls pouring over the dam and the grindstone just beyond. His heart began racing. "What are we waiting for? Let's get going."
They started running as best as they could, given Karen's pregnancy, to Shellie's house which was located downstream from the village square. Once they got there, they searched all the way to the river and began methodically looking through the brush along the riverbank. In a matter of moments their worst fears were realized.
"Look at this," Jen pointed. In the mud along the shore were some tracks.
"They're small, like Matt's," Karen said, panting. Adrenaline was pushing her in spite of being pregnant. She grabbed Quinn by the arm. "Do something!"
He took one look at the rapids downstream and began running. "I'm going to make sure he's not going over the falls by the mill," he called over his shoulder.
"I'm coming with you," Karen yelled.
"We all are," Jen added, pushing Aaron ahead. "Go!"
Quinn was way ahead of everyone, running faster than he ever had in his life, crashing through underbrush lining the shore and slipping in mud. But he kept going fueled by his love for his son. Finally, just upstream from the mill and through a break in the undergrowth he got a clear view of the river. To his horror he saw Matt. "Look," he yelled and pointed. "He's in the river. Looks like he's hung up on the top of the dam."
Even though he was about two-hundred feet away, Quinn didn't have to think. He dove into the water and swam to save his son. The high-water current carried him along fast and it took only a minute before he smashed into Matt. He grabbed a hold and held on tight while all around the water rushed past, trying to force them over the dam and into the deadly wheel of the grindstone. The roar of the falls was ear splitting. Quinn tried to talk his son, but he was out cold. His lips were blue and his eyes were closed. It was then he noticed Matt was clinging to a little dog. As if for dear life.
Panicking, he turned to scream for help only to see that Jen had swum out to assist in the rescue.
"Here," she yelled, "let me check him." She felt Matt's neck. "He's alive. I can feel a pulse."
"Thank god," Quinn said.
She pointed, "What's with the dog?"
Beside himself with worry, he said, "I have no idea." The force of the river was threatening to dislodge them and carry all of them over the dam to certain death, if not by the ten-foot drop over the falls, then by being crushed beneath the wheel of the grindstone. He implored her, "Hurry. We've got to do something."
"We need to get him to shore and warm him up."
Quinn turned and waved to Karen who was standing with Aaron. "We've got him," but his voice was lost to the booming roar of the river. More villagers were starting to show up. "Let's work him along the top of the dam."
It took about ten minutes, but they were finally able to get to shore where waiting hands took Matt from them and wrapped him in blankets and administered to him. Quinn noticed the dog stayed close the entire time.
After a few minutes Matt's eyes fluttered open. Then the color began to return to his face. He smiled at his mother, who was on the ground cradling his head in her lap. "Hi, Mom," he said, and hugged her tight. His voice was weak, but his smile said it all. He was going to be okay. Karen hugged him in return, willing warmth from her body into his. Then he asked, "Mom, where's Joey? My dog." And just like that the little dog stepped up, nuzzled in close and began licking Matt's face. He'd been waiting patiently as Matt was being cared for, never having left his side. Matt giggled joyfully and hugged him. "Mom, Joey saved my life."
Karen embraced both her son and the dog, as well as Quinn, who had knelt down and joined them. She had tears of joy in her eyes. "I know," she said. I know."
Later that night, Quinn and Karen built a fire outside their small cottage. They had finished dinner and were relaxing, finally starting to come down after the events of the day.
Quinn looked at Matt, wrapped in a blanket and cuddling Joey, and said, "Matt, we've got to talk about this. Your mom and I were beside ourselves; we were so worried. We almost lost you to that river. Did you learn a lesson today?"
"Yes, Dad, I did. I'm so sorry."
"We escaped from the city and we've come too far to have something horrible happen now, haven't we?"
"You really have to learn to me more careful."
They talked some more until Quinn had said all he had to say. He looked at Karen and she nodded him, silently mouthing, ‘Good job.' He nodded back and risked a smile at her. She smiled back and rested her hand on her stomach, as if silently communicating her familial love for Quinn and Matt and the unborn child. Their family was safe and that's what mattered. As the wood from the fire crackled and the flames lit up their faces, they all sat peacefully with each other and watched the stars come out, happy to be together.
Finally, Matt, who had been quiet, thinking, spoke up and said, "Dad. Mom. I'm really sorry about what happened."
"We know you are, dear," Karen said, reaching over to muss his hair. "Just remember what we've told you."
He smiled. "Yeah, I know. Be careful!"
Karen grinned at him. "Right."
After a few more minutes he, squirmed a little and laughed. Joey was licking him. "Hey, stop that," he grinned and squeezed the little dog tight while kissing his furry forehead. Then he looked at Quinn, "Say, Dad, I was wondering what do you think? Would it be all right if I kept Joey?"
Quinn grinned at his son. He looked at Karen who smiled and nodded her agreement. "Sure," he said. "After all, he saved your life." He reached over and scratched the little dog behind the ears. "Didn't you guy?"
Joey nuzzled Quinn's hand and then went back to cuddling with Matt.
And just like that their little family just got a little bit bigger.